There are lots of troubling stories in scripture: the sacrifice of Isaac, the banishment of Hagar. I’m going to get personal and share some of my spiritual struggles with these stories with Dr. Christopher Thomas, a theologian at the Pentecostal Theological Seminary. How will he respond?
GT: But, at any rate, the whole story about Abraham trying to sacrifice Isaac, that story just bugs me so bad. I know it’s supposed to be a [symbol for Christ.] Christians have taken that story and say, “Well, it’s like Christ.” Jews who have kind of rationalized it, “Did God really command Abraham?” There’s an ancient Jewish scholar that said, “Well, Abraham misunderstood, and it was an angel that was sent to Abraham and said, ‘Don’t do that.’” If we look at Abraham’s day, especially, human sacrifice was common. If we look at the Book of Abraham, Abraham was going to be sacrificed, which is apparently an Islamic story as well. I’ve always wondered if there’s some parallel, if that Book of Abraham story is related to Islamic texts, because that’s in the Quran, apparently. But, at any rate, I would much rather follow the interpretation that Abraham was a product of his day. His dad tried to sacrifice him. He’s trying to sacrifice Isaac, because that was kind of what you did to show your devotion to God and that it was an angel that said, “No, Abraham, you’ve got to stop.” That was a bad revelation, or whatever. To me, that is much more palatable of an explanation than God said, “Abraham, go kill Isaac.” It just boggles my mind. And even that God would say that with Jesus, “Jesus, you’re going to have to die for everybody sins.” I guess if you go with the idea that Jesus did this willingly, and somehow His body is going to atone for billions, maybe trillions of people that have ever been born, [it’s really hard to grasp.] It’s mind boggling to me, and it still bothers me that God would require this. I mean, can you talk me down from the ledge here?
Chris: No. I think we’re so close to the stories that their power sometimes escapes us. I have a friend who told me about her grandson who went to this children’s church, her two grandsons. She asked the oldest one, she says, “What did you learn today?”
He said, “Oh, we learned about Abraham and Isaac.”
She said, “Okay,” and so she asked the younger one. “What did you learn today?”
He said, “Was that that guy that tried to kill that kid, or murder that kid?”
I mean, I think we sanitize the stories, often.
GT: I know. I think we really do sanitize it.
 Rabbi Yosef Ibn Caspi (Spain, early 14th century) wrote that Abraham’s “imagination” led him astray, making him believe that he had been commanded to sacrifice his son. Ibn Caspi writes “How could God command such a revolting thing?”
Do you like the traditional interpretation of the Abraham and Isaac story, or does it bother you? How can Christ’s atonement really work for billions of people?
As we’ve mentioned before, publication of the Book of Mormon pre-dates the Pentecostal movement by almost 8 decades. What are some examples? Dr. Christopher Thomas teaches at the Pentecostal Theological Seminary, and he shares his thoughts about speaking in tongues in the Book of Mormon.
Chris: Then, the next big section of the book, I wanted to put the Book of Mormon into conversation with Pentecostalism.
GT: Right. Yeah, that’s where I wanted to go next. That’s awesome.
Chris: I started with these kind of proto-Pentecostals with whom there seems to have been some connection with the restoration. There was this Irvingite pastor who met with Joseph Smith in Kirtland. I think it was 1835. He proposed an amalgamation because the Catholic Apostolic Church believed in the restoration of apostles, prophets, etc. and in the gifts of the Spirit. So, it’s documented that there was this meeting. Smith, or one of his assistants, apparently respond to this, but several years later. Some, I think it’s Bruce Van Orden, argues that this piece, it may have been the Times and Seasons, was not written by Smith, but by one of his subordinates.
GT: W.W. Phelps, probably.
Chris: Yes, thanks for that. In part, because apparently, Joseph is acknowledging certain status issues for women. But part of the reason the Irvingites get rejected, in this article, is because of the role women played at the beginning of the movement. So, that’s been an interesting tension that people have picked up on. I wanted to look at that. I wanted to look at this guy named John Alexander Dowie. Dowie, I think he may have been Scottish. He wound up in Australia. His daughter nearly dies. He becomes a healing evangelist. He comes to the United States, passes through Salt Lake. It’s in older newspapers, Dowie’s story, and he wants to be an apostle in the LDS church. When they explain that’s not quite how it works, Dowie castigates them all, moves to Chicago and establishes Zion, Illinois.
Chris: Then, you can track it in the newspapers. He sends word to Salt Lake that he’s bringing 3000, I think it was, evangelists and he’s going to convert the lot of Mormons.
GT: John Hamer spoke about this at John Whitmer a couple of years ago.
Chris: Did he? The brethren said, “Well, come on.” What people didn’t know was that Dowie was going to reveal that polygamy was to be lived out in Mexico, and this was right in the middle of the mopping up period. This was 1890s.
GT: Right. Mormons were doing that, anyway.
Chris: That’s right. Then, there was this guy who some look upon as the founder of Pentecostalism who believed in British Israelism. His name was [Charles F.] Parham. [He was] very similar to the man who did the concordance on the Book of Mormon, George Reynolds.
GT: Oh, George Reynolds was also the guy who the Supreme Court case was about for polygamy.
Chris: That’s right. That’s right, and Reynolds was very similar in the British Israelism. Now, I was never able to quite connect Parham. I’d heard him a rumor that he had been laughed off a stage in the Independence group. But I could never track that down. But I tried to ease into things that way. Then I looked at early Pentecostal responses to the Book of Mormon and Mormonism in the early Pentecostal periodical literature. The very first one was amazingly generous, because somebody had written into the paper and said, “Why don’t you talk about the Mormons speaking in tongues?” The editor kind of castigates the Mormons, “They’re not trustworthy,” blah, blah, blah. Then he says, “But when I lived in the Rocky Mountains in the 1870s, I came across this older woman, who seemed to be a real saint of God, who told me that the Mormons were like the old time Methodists.” He said, “It reminded me of the text that said, ‘God may have a people even among these people.’” Well, I didn’t expect that. Because it’s usually knives and daggers, right? So, nobody have ever done that.
 For a brief summary of legal issues, see https://www.oyez.org/cases/1850-1900/98us145
What are your thoughts on the connections between Pentecostals & Mormons?
Dr. Christopher Thomas of the Pentecostal Theological Seminary discusses similarities and differences with Mormon Culture. We also learn about the structure of the various Pentecostal Churches.
Chris: Well, the version of Pentecostalism I grew up in is the Holiness tradition. And there were real clear kind of dress mores. I mean, the women seem to bear a disproportionate amount of the weight of those. In my tradition, women were really looked down on if they didn’t wear dresses or something similar to a dress. They couldn’t wear pants, for example. [They] sure couldn’t do that in church, but just in normal attire. I remember, as a boy, hearing discussions of women who worked in factories saying, “Well, I know, we’re not supposed to, but it is not decent for me to not wear pants being up on the next floor. The people can see up their dresses,” etc. We were pretty concerned about what we called unnecessary jewelry. Now, not all Pentecostals would have been like that. Bu it was an attempt to deal, I think, with ostentatious displays. We were teetotalers, and still are in our tradition. We don’t have anything like, well, early on, there was a question about whether you can drink Coca Cola or not, because early, early on it had a bit of coke (cocaine) in it.
Chris: So, we may not have been completely wrong about that one. One of the big differences would be that dancing was taboo.
GT: Right, Footloose.
Chris: That’s right, completely taboo. So, those kinds of negotiating the culture always presented a challenge.
GT: I think you went through my interviews, and I think you told me you skipped one, and it was with Joseph Freeman. He grew up in the Holiness Church. One of the things he told me was, they didn’t, at least in his congregation, I don’t think this is Pentecostal-wide, but they didn’t even like you to do sports.
Chris: Well, when I was a young guy, I mean, pre-ten, I remember that there was a brother in our church who was a leader in our church. He was what we called the Councilman. He left the council, because he went to see his son play. It may have been football or basketball regularly. I remember talking to my parents about it and saying, “What’s that about?” It was interesting how discerning their response was because it was a mixture of, “Well, there are people in the church that don’t believe that we should be going to these worldly amusements. But he really loves this son so much that he’s willing to make this sacrifice.” Of course, within a few years, that was not an issue anymore. But my dad started teaching a Sunday School class. He was a really good athlete, my dad, and he got a little bit of criticism when he would take the young men that he was working with, rent a high school gym and have the time of playing basketball together. So, there were people that had these really rigid notions.
GT: And, every [LDS] Church has a basketball court. (Chuckling)
Chris: Right? Well, we should have known more Mormons. (Chuckling)
In some ways, the Holiness tradition seems more strict than Mormons. Do you agree?
I used to dismiss the Pentecostals because to me it came down to authority. You know, it was us or the Catholics. The Holy Rollers didn’t have any kind of case to be made in my opinion. Now that my previous TBM opinion of LDS authority has changed, I look at us more as equals. They have their opinions. We have ours. In both cases it’s the philosophy of men mingled with scripture.
But I don’t mean to be dismissive. In my post-TBM life i’m looking for goodness and truth wherever I can find it. In my previous life I had no use for the Pent-folks. Maybe now I’ll look at it. It’s refreshing to think that our Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist friends might have some ideas worth considering. Maybe that’s the case for Catholics and Pentecostals too, who knows?
Thank you for addressing the story of Abraham and Isaac. I would imagine Wheat and Tares readers would have interesting thoughts on the issue. It was something of a game changer for me when I decided I could reject the interpretation of the story I had learned in seminary as a teen and think for myself on the issue.
It is interesting talking to some of my friends from conservative Christian religions who were a lot stricter than Mormonism. I don’t think they were Pentacostal but still no secular music whatsoever, no Halloween, etc. I agree that if we can put down our defenses at being the One True Church and stop worrying about converting each other we can really listen to and learn from one another, so thanks for this.
personally I think one interpretation of the story of Abraham is about Abraham sacrificing his (false) view of who God was for a truer view of a loving God (but I think there are many interpretations). No, I don’t believe in a God who would actually tell a parent to kill a child. Someone should do a post on this!
Here’s my post on Abraham from 2014: https://wheatandtares.org/2014/04/21/orthodox-and-liberal-interpretations-of-abraham/
Nice piece @mormon heretic! The idea that we could never cross-check a “revelation” with morality on something as black-and-white as murdering one’s child is troubling. But that very idea of course gets weaponized as the ultimate example of obedience at all costs.
I have read the entire OT through twice, and I will likely never read any of it again. Much like the Abraham story, there is so much than cannot be reconciled with goodness or even decency.
“How can Christ’s atonement really work for billions of people?”
I think that if it truly works – works for one person, me – it can work for billions. But a lot has changed for me surrounding the atonement, so I don’t “know” much anymore.